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Oak Room Interview: James B. Duke Professor of English Reynolds Price

This interview with James B. Duke Professor Reynolds Price is the fourth in a series of Oak Room Interviews, designed to shed light on the personalities of campus figures in an informal setting. The interview was conducted by John Bush, editorial page editor of The Chronicle.

JB: In 1993, you posed the question: "Does Duke University--and above all Trinity College, the heart of the institution--provide students with an environment that encourages an invigorating immersion in the life of ideas, the exploration of humane duties in private and public life, and the maturing of human relationships of a rewarding kind?" You answered "No" at the time. How do you feel today about this?

RP: I think that some attempts have been made to improve that situation. I like the new residential life plan. It sounds like an elaborate strategy in the right direction--first of all, to do justice of independents who have been poked away in basements and side quads forever, since my undergraduate years, which were in the early to mid-1950s. My own sense is that we should have moved as quickly as possible to a fairly classical residential college framework.... So I'm hopeful, but meanwhile I hear fewer of my good, serious students' complaining about the difficulty of their doing work in this place....

Other colleagues of mine say that in just the past three years that they've noticed some fairly dramatic improvement in their classes, interests of students and the quality of conversation in their classes. So, I'm hoping that's a definite trend.

JB: Do you think that the climate change is primarily admissions, policy or the faculty...?

RP: I suspect that it is primarily admissions. And also, the word is slowly coming out that we're not just some country club that we've been famous for being for numerous decades. I think the difference was made when alcohol became legal on campus.... Certainly, when I was an undergraduate from '51 to '55, if you were caught with a bottle of alcohol in your room, you were just out of here. There was no mercy about it; they put you on the next bus out of town. It's amazing what a difference sobriety makes because we did come along in a generation where students who came to college at age 18 had not been accustomed to alcohol's having been a very large part of their high school and middle school life. In that sense, it was a different world, and it has been extraordinary the difference that alcohol has made on campus.

JB: What do you think about faculty-student interaction?

RP: As far as I can tell, it's still one of the great weak elements in the whole undergraduate experience. Everybody's to blame; there's no single culprit. Our advising system is hopelessly useless to 98 percent of our students, at least that I speak with.... I don't think that students start out at Duke with any sense that a senior faculty member--or a junior faculty member for that matter--might be available to them or might be interested if they came by walking into [the professor's] office....

It just is a tradition at Duke that students don't come to see their teachers. I sit in my office hours two days a week, and I also list "and by appointment" and, generally speaking, nobody comes by. Here I am, and I mark the time reading a book or getting through my own homework and just nobody comes....

JB: Do you see any easy way to change this or is it more of a trend?

RP: I think that if you wind up with a larger nexus of students who really do think, as I do, that the university education is primarily about books and intellectual conversation then slowly it would dawn on students that their major resources available to them would be interpersonal interaction with a faculty member. I don't know a single faculty member--and I've been here for 44 years--who's not available for students who ask for a meeting, to take them to lunch, to meet them to dinner....

JB: What is planned for you this weekend?

RP: I've got to read through proofs [of my book] for accuracy and any changes that I want to make and get those back in the mail by Monday. It will be published in June.... It will be my 12th novel and 35th book.

JB: Do you know the title yet?

RP: Noble Norfleet, which is a man's name. It's an old North Carolina name; it may well be an old American name, but conventionally, it's from around here.

JB: You have written several books on religious topics. What role does faith play in your work?

RP: One of the books was elicited from me by a young man who was dying of pancreatic cancer. He had read a book of mine about my own experience with cancer, and he wrote to me and asked me two fairly sizeable questions. He said "Does God exist, and does He care?"

And I really felt like I had to answer the letter or try to answer it. But I also had the sense that if he had pancreatic cancer, he wasn't going to live long enough for me to write a really long answer. So I called him up... in Red Bank, New Jersey, and talked to him a little bit. He was a first-year medical student. He was in trouble about as bad as things get in. So, then I started trying to write--you can't write an answer to those questions, you can write a reflection on those questions, which is what I did....

JB: Did faith play a role in your battle with [spinal] cancer?

RP: Yes, I was reared a Christian in a very unpressured environment. I was not from a heavily intense fundamentalist family, but I've been a believer all my life with not serious breaks in that situation. It was a great help to me getting through my spinal cancer--getting through it as far as I got, which is 18 years later.... I think it's relatively invisible since I don't set out to be a converter or an evangelist of any sort. The church has gotten along very well without me, and it will continue. Though I do love teaching my seminar, and I have a very good one going on now.

JB: What brought you to Duke [as a student]?

RP: My parents were not college graduates, but [my mother's nephew] and his wife had been Duke students in the early days when Duke was Trinity College and changed over to Duke. And, I grew up mostly in Raleigh, so here was the great nearby university and I got an A.B. Duke and I went...

Then I went to Oxford to graduate school for three years, and in the last year I was away, I knew I had to get a job. I was sort of groaning about the difficulties of getting a job from so far away. Then, all of a sudden, the Duke English department wrote to me and said would I accept a three-year contract to teach English.... I came back in 1958 and have just wound up staying here ever since. I've stayed because I've been happy to be here; I could certainly have gone away if I had wanted to. It's been a good place to spend a long academic career....

JB: After all these years in the English Department, what trends have you seen and and what impact have some of the prominent people, like Stanley Fish, had?

RP: I like Stanley Fish very much. I thought he was a splendid department chairman. He made mistakes, who doesn't? He hired some interesting people. Some were hyper-glamorous who left us as quickly as they came, but that was no detriment.... I think he's one of the great Miltonians of recent years. He invigorated things considerably.

So, I've seen the changes in the life of a department. Going from being a very standard, relatively stodgy department which taught the history of English and American literature, down to being a department now very much enraptured by the whole... arrival of French critical theory into American thinking, which is a little absurd, but the totality with which it has been accepted has been an innovation. But it will creep away because it's not usable by anybody but a small [group] of practitioners.

It's a healthy department; it's always had a very large number of undergraduate majors. I've thoroughly enjoyed being a member of it, and I've enjoyed very much so, the politics of department life. It's sort of my way of living in something that approaches the real world instead of the ivory tower.

JB: What do you think about technology in the classrooms?

RP: I think it's fine where it's relevant and useful and revealing about the subject matter. I don't know about anybody in the English department, for instance, who has used it with any extensive commitment. I mean, what are you going to do? Are you going to go back to the sixth grade and show your students movies about Shakespeare's birthplace...? But I must say that it's amazing what you can do when you go to and type John Milton or William Shakespeare.... Still, the large burden of human knowledge is between the covers of books--and nowhere else....

One of the great fallacies in undergraduate education, especially in America, is the assumption that our department ought to be about human relationships. Well, that's fine, but human beings are social animals anyway. They are going to form relationships; very few people are going to go to their rooms and become schizophrenic monomaniacs. The whole idea that college is basically about getting to know other human beings and being involved with them socially is just crazy. College is the time that our culture agrees to donate to certain privileged young people so that they can sit still and learn a lot of what they don't know. Other human beings are something that they're going to learn anyway because they're social animals....

JB: What makes your job rewarding?

RP: It's one semester a year, and I always tremendously look forward to it. When I get ready for second semester to role around, which is when I teach, I always get that set of nerves of a kid on the first day of school. Have a I got the right lunch box? Are kids going to laugh at my new sweater? And so I think that it's really the give-and-take with students. And engaging one more time in these texts which I've been reading since before I was a Duke undergraduate and finding endlessly rich and resourceful material to tell me about the world and human life.

JB: How long have you had that arrangement?

RP: I asked the University some time ago, after my first book... if I could teach two classes, one semester a year... and that has been my regular arrangement with the University ever since. I'm a full-time member of the faculty--I'm not a part-time professor--and that means a lot to me because I enjoy the business aspects of department life, as well as just the classroom aspects. I don't enjoy it so much that I want to be chairman of the English department again but it does interest me to see how the politics shape an institution or a department of an institution and how that can affect what we're supposed to be doing, which is teaching literature to students....

But the kind of schedule I've had has permitted me to go ahead and write all of these books and that's been a huge help to me as a teacher--I also had a kind of acting working life outside the classroom. I can bring aspects of that writing life into my teaching and my relations with my students. I've had a lot of students who have gone on to be really excellent professional writers and I don't think that I would have been able to give them what I gave them--whatever I gave them--had I also not been working myself at the whole business of writing.

JB: How do you think being a Southerner influences your take on things?

RP: It's an interesting destiny to be a Southerner.... I think primarily it's useful to a writer as an outsider's take. The whole United States has never quite considered the South a part of the country. We're kind of a separate republic of our own--well, we were even 140-odd years ago, [when] we decided we wanted to be the confederate states, and as gruesome as the reasons for that were, they gave us that sense of separateness. Still, the South's separateness greatly precedes the Civil War. If you go back and read a lot of 17th and 18th century documents, you'll find that New England did not think the South was up-to-snuff. We were supposed to be dumb and shiftless and of no account. As a writer, I feel... like an alien agent on the most of the rest of the culture--and that's another thing I've managed and enjoyed being.